Gao Hongbo appears to have coached his last match for the national team last night in a torrential downpour in Hefei. China won 1-0 against Jamaica, the goal coming from a header by much maligned defender Zhao Peng. The man took over a side in disarray, discontent running high among an aging squad and turned it around. His youth policy literally changed the face of Chinese soccer, as many older players who had long been national team fixtures were replaced with young kids who most had never heard of (but would quickly become familiar with). He was almost a miracle worker, bringing respectability and even hope back to the national team.
Then this year’s Asian Cup happened, there were big expectations for China that they failed miserably to deliver on, only managing a win, a draw, and a loss, failing to advance from the group stage. More disappointing were the obvious tactical and substitution issues that Gao had during the tournament, calling into question whether he had the experience necessary to lead China. However, we should also remember Gao’s accomplishments, when he took over in April 2009, they were ranked 12th in Asia, by April 2011, he had them ranked 5th. This may not seem like a big deal, but it meant they were in bowl one and not bowl three when World Cup qualifying groups were chosen, leading to them being blessed with a very easy qualifying group.
When word started to spread that Wang Jianlin, the very rich head of Wanda Real Estate, was going to invest in Chinese football and hoped his money could attract a new, world-class manager, I was conflicted. For one, give the CFA money and it’s almost guaranteed it will be squandered. For another, Gao is young and energetic, not far removed from his own playing days, he’s an excellent man manager and knows how to get the most from his players. Yes, his tactical background is weak, but it’s not something a quality assistant wouldn’t be able to fix. Then again, if Wang’s money could attract a truly world class manager, it would be good for China’s team and for the country’s reputation in international soccer.
All the big European coaching names started floating around, some realistic, some not so much. Klinsmann, Lippi, Van Basten, Hiddinck, Beenhakker, Rijkaard and Scolari were all mentioned. While I fear the likes of Klinsmann and Rijkaard may just be more famous, less Chinese versions of Gao (former players not far from their playing days who are weaker on tactics), the other names are all very intriguing. With the promise of Wang’s money, it looked like the sky was the limit and this time China’s promise to find a world class manager to guide China was going to be a reality.
Despite all the talk, the end result is that Jose Antonio Camacho will be the next manager of China. Those asking “who” aren’t alone. Camacho isn’t a complete unknown, having managed Spain at Euro 2000 and World Cup 2002 as well as a brief stint at Real Madrid. Yet the only trophy he’s won was a Portuguese league cup with Beneficia and his managerial career is less than stellar. The Chinese job could potentially invigorate a career that was on the skids. The CFA’s search process in finding their new coach was to go to different European FA’s and ask for recommendations, Camacho was who Spain recommended, and “international football experts” confirmed that Camacho would be a good choice.
The pressure is now on Camacho, anything less than qualifying for the Word Cup will be viewed as unacceptable and will probably mean he gets fired. He still hasn’t arrived in China, has never heard of or seen any of his new players before, and we’re less than three weeks away from China’s first World Cup Qualifying match, September 2nd against Singapore. While it’s possible to dismiss the Singapore match as an easy victory, within the first two months of his tenure, Camacho will have to play difficult away qualifying matches in the Middle East, where China has often struggled.
In an “only in China” situation, Gao has yet to be fired, Camacho has yet to be officially announced as the manager, and CFA boss Wei Di is already telling the media that he regrets missing out on Rijkaard, saying if China would have gone straight to him instead of having his agent come to China, he might have ended up coaching China instead of going to Saudi Arabia.
Good luck to Gao, whether he decides to stay on as an assistant or “consultant” or go back to the Chinese Super League, and also to Camacho, who has a difficult task ahead of him.
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